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The Jewish Law Collection

The following is a guest post by Nathan Dorn, Rare Book Technician at the Law Library of Congress.

In a previous post on this blog, a colleague of mine points out that the Law Library possesses significant collections in the area of religious law. An outstanding example of these, which he describes in his post, is the Law Library’s canon law collection.  While the canon law collection is impressive by any standard, the Law Library is also fortunate to possess a unique and growing collection on the subject of Jewish law.

Jewish law, broadly speaking, is the system of law associated with the rise of Rabbinic Judaism in the Land of Israel and in Babylonia during the first several centuries of the common era. With roots in early antiquity, it continues to be an integral part of the Jewish religious tradition through today. Some elements of its classical literature are the Hebrew Bible, the Mishnah (an early codification of oral traditions of law and interpretation), the Talmud, Rabbinic Responsa, and the codes, the most important of which is the 16th-century Shulhan Aruk of Joseph Karo.

Jewish law contains ritual prescriptions and prohibitions, details of religious practice and personal ethics. But it also contains components of both public law and private law. It includes criminal law, provisions for the operation of the courts and evidentiary procedure, contract law, torts and business ethics, as well as laws of personal status: marriage, divorce, inheritance and adoption. Jewish law continues to be held authoritative by many Jewish communities. It also plays an important role in the laws of the State of Israel, where aspects of Jewish law are applied in matters of personal status for Jewish citizens.

The vast majority of the Library of Congress’ holdings in Jewish law are housed in the general collection and in the Hebraic section of the African and Middle Eastern Division.  In comparison to these, the Law Library’s collection of Jewish law is modest at approximately 1,200 titles. This is because much of the Law Library’s collection is recently acquired.  Until 2003, most Jewish law titles acquired by the Library were classified under BM – Jewish religion. Since the advent of the Jewish law classification schedule – KBM – in late 2003, this has no longer been the case. The new classification made a distinction between Jewish ritual law and Jewish law in the areas of public and private law, with the ritual laws remaining under religion, and the other areas of the law reassigned to the Law Library. This change in policy has greatly enhanced the Law Library’s collecting of works on Jewish law.

While the Law Library holds works of many kinds, including treatises by modern rabbinic authors, academic monographs in history and jurisprudence and popular works on aspects of Jewish law, three particular strengths of the collection deserve special mention. First, the Law Library possesses a large number of works produced by the Mishpat Ivri movement, a school of contemporary jurists, mostly Israelis, whose project has been to recast the parts of Jewish law relating to civil matters in terms that make it usable as a minor source of law in the modern State of Israel.

Second, many of the newest receipts in our collection, perhaps the fastest growing part of the collection, are close studies and commentaries written by rabbinic authors and traditional judges, or poskim, on Hoshen Mishpat, the section of the Shulhan Aruk dealing with procedure, torts and finance.

The third and probably most unique strength of the Law Library’s collection is its surprising number of early translations of rabbinic works and commentaries on Jewish law written by non-Jewish and non-rabbinic authors.  Striking among these is Mischna, sive Totius Hebraeorum juris, rituum, antiquitatum, ac legum oralium systema…, prepared by the Dutch scholar Willem Surenhuys (1666-1729).  It is the first translation into Latin of the entire text of the Mishnah. Presenting Latin and Hebrew text in parallel columns, Surenhuys’ translation also includes Latin versions of the commentaries of Moses Maimonides and Obadiah of Bertinoro.

The Law Library possesses a wealth of rare early editions by important Christian Hebraists, both renaissance and modern. Noteworthy are the Italian humanist, Carlo Sigonio (1524-1584), the English jurist John Selden (1584-1654) and the German orientalist Johann David Michaelis (1717-1791).

Rare book service is available on weekdays from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  Access to rare materials is by appointment and we welcome your inquiries.  For further information, contact Dr. Meredith Shedd-Driskel, Law Curator, at mdri@loc.gov.

One Comment

  1. Ruth Levush
    April 1, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    Congradulations, Nathan Dorn, for a very well written piece.

    Ruth Levush

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